Nikko Toshogu is a visually stunning shrine complex in Tochigi Prefecture, dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu — who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate — and the centerpiece of the Nikko Unesco Heritage Site. Indeed, it is what people mean when they refer to “Nikko Shrine.”
Toshogu includes an array of impressive gates, decorated walls, shrines and temples, and many national treasures and important cultural artifacts. One of these treasures is Nemuri Neko, the sleeping cat. By passing underneath this 17th Century wooden statue attributed to Hidari Jingoro, visitors can begin climbing the hundreds of stone steps to the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
According to Wikipedia, “Five structures at Nikkō Tōshō-gū are categorized as National Treasures of Japan, and three more as Important Cultural Properties.” Among the national treasures is the elaborately decorated Gohonsha, or Main Hall. Visitors must remove their shoes to enter the central area of worship, whether to pray or enjoy the splendor. (Photography is not permitted inside the hall.)
In addition to Nemuri Neko, Toshogu hosts a regular mythical bestiary of statues and bas-reliefs, from peacocks and phoenixes to the famous Three Wise Monkeys and elephants rampant.
Among all the impressive sights at Toshugo, one temple stands out for its sound: Yakushi-do, to the left of the Youmeimon gate, features the Roaring Dragon. Monks clap woodblocks under the enormous dragon mural on the ceiling of the temple to produce a ringing echo. The acoustics of the temple room are such that the woodblocks only echo when they are clapped directly in front of the dragon’s face, as the monks demonstrate. (Photography and recording are not permitted here.)
The temple also features statues of Buddhas representing the 12 years of the Chinese calendar.
When to visit
Toshogu nests in a forest of impressive old Japanese cedar trees (杉). As these are evergreens, there’s no autumn color season for visiting. On the other hand, those who suffer from cedar pollen allergy may wish to take precautions and avoid the active season.
As with all popular tourist attractions in Japan, Toshogu becomes very crowded on weekends and holidays. Even on a cold, snowy December day, the bus to the shrine was jam-packed. (Of course, in better weather many visitors may elect to walk from the station.)
Direct trains run several times per day to Tobu Nikko Station from Shinjuku or Asakusa. Visitors can purchase a day pass for the World Heritage Bus at Tobu Nikko Station for ¥500. The bus leaves every 15 minutes on a loop that includes Toshogu — disembark at the Omotesando (表参道) stop (No. 83).
The bus ticket office at Tobu Nikko Station also sells entrance tickets for Toshogu: ¥1,300 for admission to all shrine attractions including the roaring dragon at Yakushi-do. Tickets are also available at the entrance to the shrine.